October 15, 2006

Orhan Pamuk and the Moral History of the Nobel Prize

I've started reading this year's Nobel Prize Winner Orhan Pamuk's Snow. It is a highly engrossing, enormously provocative novel of real beauty. The set-up is audacious: a moderately well-known Turkish poet returns from a self-imposed exile in Germany to a desolate corner of Turkey, where he hopes both to marry his college crush and to investigate a rash of suicides of young women, many of whom have ties to political Islam. He is marooned there by a huge snowstorm, and then it sort of turns into a collaborative project between Bahman Ghobadi and David Lynch. It's fantastic.

I also ran across a really interesting article in Salon about the moral histories of some of the past recipients of the Nobel Prize for literature. While we all now know about Gunter Grass and the Waffen-SS, I was surprised to find out that so many other winners had very checkered pasts, including, I was shocked to find out, Pablo Neruda.
The most shameful (and least known) episode, however, concerns Neruda, a lifelong, unrepentant Stalinist. During his stint at the Chilean Embassy in Paris dealing with asylum applications from Spanish Civil War refugees, Neruda is said to have heavily favored those who shared his hard-line beliefs when it came to issuing visas. One wonders how many of the rejected perished in concentration camps or wound up as slave laborers under Nazi and Vichy rule. There's also the little matter of Neruda's aiding and abetting under diplomatic cover an unsuccessful assassination attempt on Trotsky in Mexico in 1940, an action he defended his entire life.
Knut Hamsun gave his Nobel medal to Goebbels, Luigi Pirandello joined the Fascists early on, Wole Soyinka refused to stage a play of Animal Farm as it was anti-Stalinist, Jacinto Benevente and novelist Camilo José Cela collaborated with Franco, and Mikhail Sholokov was a plagiarist and a Stalinist shill.

Of course, the committee does keep some people from receiving the prize for certain reasons—Celine and Pound's anti-Semitism was far too well-known to honor them, and Bertolt Brecht cuckolded one of the prize committee members, so you don't see any of their names on the list.


  1. broseph11:12 PM

    Fascinating article, thanks for pointing it out. It does not say, however, that Brecht cuckolded a member of the prize committee--only that "his philandering...was rumored to have irked a cuckold who sat on the committee." Do you know something I don't here?

  2. No, i just read that as insinuating that one of Brecht's escapades happened to be the wife of a man on the committee--you're probably right, it was more likely disapproval than actual cuckolding that caused his "irking."